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MSPnet Blog: “Personalized and segmented: It just makes sense”

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posted April 18, 2016 – by Brian Drayton

As I have continued to wander through the Canyons of Competency, my roving eye has been attracted by various shiny attractions lying along the path to Personalized Learning, including the form which is our inevitable future (hat-tip to Emily Talmage’s blog for this reference), “mass customized learning.”   I have discovered that education needs to be reimagined, and transformed, and it’s all so as to put learners at the center again, where they just have not been before.  In order to solve the intractable problems of education, we need to get all diverse points of view together, and converge on wise solutions upon which we can then take action — or at least publish a document, which can then be cited by others as research.

The last few sentences were hard to type; I found myself struggling against a tide of irony.   After a few deep breaths to clear my head, I have examined my reactions, trying to identify their source:  is it just ennui in the face of policy churn and edufad, or hiraeth stemming from lost certainties, or is it (I hope!) a hint that there’s something here worth a closer look?  The latter, I think.   I cleaned my glasses off, and plunged into yet another mare’s nest of “reports,” newsletters, manifestos, and press clippings.

A Gallop through history. First an extremely quick review of the path to Now (education version).  A Nation At Risk (ANAR), the legendary Reagan-administration manifesto, seized the imagination of policy-makers with its narrative of extreme school failure, and its prescriptions for a way forward, including higher standards and accountability measures, changes to teacher evaluation and compensation.  One of the most important consequences of failure, in the report’s analysis, is a weakening of the US position in the globalizing marketplace.  (I well remember the hype about the Fifth Generation Computing initiative in Japan, which with its massively parallel processing, AI implementations, and other innovations was going to make Japan the new Top Nation, and relegate the US to the Imperial Has-beens Club along with the UK).

We had a proliferation of Core Content Solutions, and Accountability Solutions, and Inventive Solutions (including the “Shanker” version of charter schools; for some backstory and an explanation of the scare quotes, see an earlier entry in this blog).  The mood of the policy world, however, was increasingly in synch with the free-market views championed for decades by Milton Friedman, who had been advocating since at least the late 1950s that The Education Question could best be solved by the Market (see here for “The only solution is competition,” an interview with Friedman that gets the basic view across).   The ideological frame of failure— higher standards—education as economics — market solutions was put in place, and coopted the centuries-old technical ethos of bureaucracy, and “learning,”  “teaching,”  “improvement” and similar ideas became quantitative notions which then eased their redefinition as a “market” or “industry.”

Of course, there were other people already on the field who had other  ideas about what they were doing there, in all those brick’n’mortar schoolhouses, and were not at all up on the idea of education as primarily a techno-quant sort of enterprise.  However, by dint of much ingenuity, a ton of private funding, and a bi-partisan unity about the framing of the problem and solutions, K-12 education has been the subject of a relentless churn of “experiments” with charters, alternative certifications, increasingly automated accountability, VAMs.  Somehow, the system has not yet been transformed into the market- created paradise foreseen all these years ago.

Where does “common sense” come from?  One  of the fascinating things about capitalism is its fluidity;  indeed, like water falling on my roof, it will tend to find any little chink to flow through, shaping itself to conditions, and moving onward in its preferred direction.   The hot new item is “learner centered education,” or “personalized learning” or any of a number of variants.  This is picking up steam fast, and because it employs many terms that we respond to positively (choice, the learner, freedom, any (-time, -where, -pace)…  Billionaires who want to help are now heavily into this.See, for example,  Ed Week‘s blast of coverage about the new Zuckerberg-Chan initiative; fresh from their fiasco in  Newark,  NJ, they have gone back to the first principles of market-based education theory (technology version), and brought us this new   panacea. We are going to try this out with a bunch of kids, teachers, and schools, and it’s just gonna work this time, even though  “the Facebook CEO acknowledged that there’s not yet any independent, large-scale research to show personalized learning’s effectiveness.”  Leading with his gut, like a good entrepreneur should: “The model just intuitively makes sense,” Zuckerberg said.

It makes sense, of course, because of the framing that has by now become orthodoxy, rooted as it is in so many other orthodox views of The Way Things Work.   Because of this framing,  “learner centered,” a term which has long progressive connotations, can be coopted without a trace of irony by the re-definition of citizens, or students, as customers.  As with many of the foundational ideas in this frame, Friedman led the way, asserting (in the interview linked above). The problem in our school system is that the customer is the teacher and not the student.  As Steger and Roy point out, in their Very Short Introduction to Neoliberalism (pg 13), one of the core “moves” of neoliberal management/governance theory is just this re-definition.  And I conclude this post (with others to follow) with this introduction of  “neoliberalism,” as a convenient way to flag the breadth and depth of the philosophical assumptions that underlie the “personalization” move, along with much else (thanks, George Monbiot, for good timing!) that is happening in our world.  “Common sense” these days is a product, too — of coordinated or harmonized intellectual, ideological, economic, and political work that throws up characteristic proposals for any problem, and makes us inclined to welcome them, despite perhaps some misgivings that we can’t quite put our finger on.  Zeitgeist.  The Spirit of the Age.